Jacob Kelly tests water samples at a San Diego public library, helped by his sister Jordyn and their volunteer instructor, Callen Hyland. (Roxana Popescu)

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Green algae bubbling in a beaker, a 3D printer purring on a table, and a molecular and cellular biologist culturing bacteria with a small group of students -- it was just another day at the library. Specifically, a public library in San Diego that’s home to what may be the world’s first biotech laboratory-in-a-library.

The lab, tucked inside a former storage room, behind bookshelves and rows of computers, opened last month in the ultra-wealthy, ultra-nerdy coastal community of La Jolla, north of downtown San Diego.

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Some of its equipment is as sophisticated as what you’d find in a university research setting. There’s a DNA analyzing and sequencing tool known as a polymerase chain reaction machine, a vortexer for mixing or dissolving liquids, centrifuges and 3D printers. On a whiteboard, a wish list: an autoclave, antibiotics, a potable sink and a bacterial colony counter.

Don’t worry about picking up any pathogens with your books, said Shaun Briley, the La Jolla / Riford Library’s manager. It’s a Biosafety Level 1 lab, so it only handles agents that wouldn’t normally make healthy adults sick. "The chemicals in the cleaning closet are more dangerous," he said. Also, people can only use the lab when there’s a trained volunteer supervising.

So far the lab has been an ongoing experiment, he added. “It’s like its own little bacteria life form. It’s grown in its own manner.”

The idea fits into one established trend: community or DIY biotech labs, which are sprouting around the country. New York has Genspace, and there are others in Boston, Baltimore, Denver and San Diego. But those require memberships or payment for courses and resources. This lab is entirely free -- free lectures, free workshops, and free access to equipment and volunteer experts.

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Here’s another trend Briley hopes will pick up: public libraries plugging into local expertise, whether it’s biotechnology, medical research, farming or energy, to provide specialized education to their patrons. “Every community has some focus, something they do in particular, and here it just happens to be biotech,” he said.

La Jolla is home to a medicine and life science research hub. Up the hill are UC San Diego and The Salk Institute for Biological Sciences. A map in the lab shows other points of interest: Pfizer, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and maybe a dozen other name-brand institutes and companies. That doesn’t include the many startups and smaller outfits. Researchers could use the lab to teach the public about their work or science in general.

Briley put the lab together with help and equipment donations from San Diego’s biology community and "a very small amount of library funds." One local DIY biology organization, The Wet Lab, was instrumental, he said, working with him to finesse the concept and then offering volunteers for office hours and monthly workshops.

Recent topics: bacteria engineering, DNA barcoding, where people learned to identify different fish by their DNA, and carbon sequestration and alternative energy. The workshops, like the lab, are open to children and adults.

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“Everybody should have some understanding of this stuff,” Briley said. Otherwise, “how is the public going to make informed decisions about these really complex scientific issues?”

Monica Kelly, who lives not far from the library, heard about the lab at one of the workshops. On a recent Thursday she brought in her daughter and son to work on a science project. Their mission was to find out how clean or dirty the water is at some local beaches. Kelly homeschools her children, so the project was in part a lesson about running an experiment, in part a chance to answer a question they were curious about.

"Basically, like, we're going to grow bacteria from the water samples and see how much bacteria there is," said her son, Jacob, who's in eighth grade.


Callen Hyland, a cellular and molecular biologist, 3D printed a microscope in the La Jolla public library's new biotechnology lab where she volunteers. (Roxana Popescu)

They worked with Callen Hyland, who has a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology from Yale and who’s one of volunteers deployed by The Wet Lab. She asked the kids questions and had them prepare the samples for testing.

Kelly said they got the idea after moving to San Diego from Costa Rica, where the ocean seemed cleaner. When they went swimming by their new home -- which happens a lot, judging from their fierce suntans and beach blond locks -- they noticed that the storm runoff after rainy days flowed into the ocean. And they wondered: Does that make the beach unsafe for swimming? They were torn between finding out the potentially unsavory truth or letting ignorance be bliss, she said. Scientific inquiry won over.

They’ll be coming back every week until they test each sample. If they find anything noteworthy, they might get the word out to the public, Kelly said.

So what do you call a space where kids study with Ph.D.s and the “read of the month” could be fish DNA? Officially it's the Bio Lab, but on Twitter, a user named Christina Tran came up with a few other ideas: “La Jolla public library recently opened a BLS-1 public biotech lab...Labrary? Labrirary? So great.”

Roxana Popescu's work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and the Paris Review Daily. She has a Ph.D from Harvard and lives in San Diego.

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